Thomas Rassloff/Demotix. All rights reserved.
The confrontation with the dramatic images of refugees in Europe’s eastern backyard has brought the Syrian civil war back to the attention of European citizens and their political elites: refugees in sinking boats; refugees cramming into train stations and climbing border barriers; drowned little Syrian boys washing up on beaches.
On 4 September, the New York Times published an extended report of the refugee crisis in Europe, entitled ‘Exodus of Syrians Highlights Political Failure of the West.’ In a nutshell, this article said that it was never any secret that the mounting number of Syrian refugees would sooner or later erupt beyond the borders of the Middle East and reach Europe. Yet little was done in European capitals to stop or mitigate what the author described as ‘the slow-motion disaster’ that was befalling Syrian civilians.
This is an insightful and correct observation. But it is even more accurate and necessary to observe that the exodus of Syrians highlights the failure of the politics of proxies in Iran, Saudi-Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. Unfortunately, only a few in those countries dare to criticise the inhuman geopolitical game their governments are playing in the region these days. Even among those Middle Eastern intellectuals and civil society leaders who are in safe havens in the west, there are but few who dare to speak out about the irresponsible and bloody geopolitics of their countries. Any thinkable fundamental solution for today’s disaster in the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) can only be found if civil society leaders and intellectuals start to make their citizens aware of the geopolitics in which their governments are involved.
In the MENA region today, war, terrorism and political/sectarian conflict are widespread. Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq are burning in civil wars. The longstanding hostilities between Israel and Palestine are on-going without any short-term or mid-term perspective for sustainable peace. The terrorism of radical religious militias makes victims on a daily basis in Afghanistan and Pakistan. All in all, there have been thousands of civilian casualties over the last decade, the most vulnerable of them women and children, who have no part in creating those aggressions. The socio-economic and socio-cultural foundations of many societies have fallen apart. Populations have been struggling with war in a survival-of-the-fittest-like situation in many countries in the MENA region for a long time.
The causes and consequences of these conflicts, however, transcend far beyond their local dynamics. From the eastern borders of MENA—Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria—to Libya in the west, the ongoing civil wars involve and continue to reproduce interregional rivalries, as many MENA conflicts are part power-play and proxy-wars of mightier countries and take place in more fragile societies or failing states in the region. In other cases, radical elements have moved into regional ‘markets’ for aggression.
The populations of proxy-makers are unaware of the destructive role their governments play in other societies in the region.
Tunisia, for instance, a relatively stable country in the region, delivers one of the highest numbers of foreigner fighters to ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Iran, a country relatively spared from terrorist attacks for the time being, is the major military supporter of Syria’s Assad in his war against rebel groups, with high numbers of civilian casualties. Morocco, MENA’s far west, has been bombing the Houthi rebels in Yemen, together with an alliance of Arab Gulf countries and Egypt. Turkey is bombing its own Kurds, who try to support Syrian Kurds in their fight against ISIS both in Syria and beyond its nation-state borders. Saudi Arabia’s huge financial support to ISIS and other Sunni extremists, in Syria and Iraq in particular, and in the whole MENA region in general, as a remedy to Shia revival, is by now common knowledge. If there is a significant common feature of war and conflict in many MENA countries, it is that their causes and consequences reach far beyond the national borders of individual states.
Even if there are clear supra-national components in most conflicts in the MENA region, there is a general lack of awareness among MENA citizens of such supra-national and regional components of local war situations. Although the populations of those countries that are the victims of proxies have some idea of the share of other regional countries in their local disasters, the populations of proxy-makers are virtually unaware of how destructive a role their governments play in other societies in the region.
Nor is there a vital, regular and solid platform to connect civil society activists and organisations working at the local level to promote non-violent culture, ethnic and religious tolerance, and peace-making and peacebuilding with their counterparts in other MENA countries. The initiatives so far have been either incidental or worked within narrower confines. The voice and face of peace, in consequence, has virtually no effective podium nor any sustainable embedding.
The dynamics of events in the MENA region also show an increasing interregional interdependence. The social protests and the collective actions after the Arab Spring, and during the Iranian Green Movement, show that the citizens of the region and their civil society representatives have much in common in their baseline demands.
If we accept that national conflicts in the MENA region transcend national borders in their causes and consequences, and that, at the same time, there are many similarities in the aspirations of the region’s civil societies, the MENA region urgently requires a reconciliation and cooperation effort. Such an effort could only succeed and be sustainable if it invests in and nurtures the culture of peace at the very grassroots level in the civil societies of those countries. Peacebuilding in the region could and should endeavour to connect civil societies beyond their nation-based framework of thinking, to promote multilevel (local, national, regional) analysis and understanding of components of war and aggression, and to contribute to building sustainable peace in the MENA region.
Regular exchanges among local civil society actors who have the potential to cooperate on such issues are scarce. Hence there is a dire lack of regional dialogue, social capital, trust and network development among peace-minded and peacebuilding-oriented civil society activists and organizations. What is also missing, in consequence, are the preconditions that are essential for the creation of a common vision, strategy and roadmap to foster the regional role civil societies can play in creating a culture of peace.
To help create a foundation for such mutual understanding, it is vital for civil society leaders and activists of different nations in the region to engage in regional dialogue, exchange and collaboration. This way, they may be inspired to contribute to the development of greater interdependency and awareness across the region. The creation of a region-wide civil society network will help to solidify a cooperation modus and thus contribute to sustainable peace and prosperity in the region.